Click HERE for an audio version of this message.
I invite you to open your Bibles or Service Folders to our second lesson for today, James 1: 22-27 as we hear James describe for us what Pure Religion is.
Religion is not a very popular word in our world today. When people hear that word, they tend to think of people arguing with each other about things they consider unimportant. They think of terrible things that people have done in the name of religion. They think of organized religion as a group of people who seem to think they are better than others, or who are just looking for more money to build bigger buildings.
The word religion can have a bad connotation in our world today, but the truth is that everyone has a religion. Everyone has a set of values and beliefs by which they live their lives. In fact, even an atheist has a religion. He lives his life based on the belief that there is no God and therefore no afterlife. A Humanist has a religion. He lives his life based on the belief that humans have the power and wisdom within themselves to solve all the world’s problems if given enough time, effort and money.
Our world would say “it doesn’t matter which religion you pick, just pick a set of beliefs and follow them. Be true to yourself. That’s the best you can do because who knows which set of beliefs is right, or better?”
James, guided by God the Holy Spirit, would disagree. He states very clearly that there is a religion that is pure and undefiled in the sight of God the Father. We don’t have to decide what is pure religion and what is not. God has revealed it to us in his word.
The first thing involved in pure religion is almost something James assumes. He says, don’t be people who only hear the word. He is assuming that those who are hearing or reading his letter are people who are regularly hearing and reading other parts of God’s word. He is writing to people who claim Christianity as their religion. He is writing to people who have heard that God created the world in six normal days so that we are accountable to him for everything we think, do, or say. They have heard that, because we sin, God should condemn us and cast us out of his presence for all eternity. They have heard that, instead of giving us what we deserve for our sins, he has given us his one and only perfect Son, Jesus. They have heard that Jesus lived perfectly in our place, went to the cross to pay for the sins of the whole world, and rose from the dead. They have heard that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. They have heard that, because God so loved us, we ought to love him above all things, and our neighbor as ourselves. God promises that faith comes from hearing the message. The Holy Spirit chooses to work through the hearing of the word to bring people from darkness to light, from unbelief to faith.
James was writing to people like us who gather regularly to hear God’s word. You can’t have pure religion, a religion that is pure in God’s eyes, unless the things you believe and the values that guide you in life come from God’s word. If the things you believe and the values that guide you in life come from anywhere else, in God’s eyes your religion is false and worthless. And that’s not a mean thing to say. It’s a loving thing to say. Someone might be convinced that eating an apple a day will cure their cancer so they stop all other treatments. A loving Dr. would make it as clear as they could that, no matter how strongly they believed it, eating an apple a day would not cure them. Their belief is false and worthless and couldn’t save them.
Pure religion includes listening regularly to the word of truth, God’s word recorded for us in the Bible. But, pure religion doesn’t stop there. And this is where the word religion has come to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. Too many people claim to be Christians, they sit in church regularly and listen to God’s word, but they don’t put what they hear into practice. James chides us, Don’t merely listen to the word, do what it says.
Now there’s a challenge! God’s word says a lot of things. We summarize them in the ten commandments. We summarize what the word says even further when we say “love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself.” We hear these things. We say that we believe these things. But we certainly don’t do them, not all the time, never perfectly. When we look at our natural face in the mirror of God’s law, we see all our blemishes, all our sins and shortcomings. We can walk away from that mirror thinking, “it’s not so bad. I have a lot fewer and a lot smaller blemishes then most people.” Or, we can be horrified by how often we have sinned and as we think of the punishment we deserve.
Thankfully, when we are horrified by how often we have sinned and by the punishment we know we deserve, God uses his word to point us to Jesus. In his word he reminds us that when Jesus looked in the mirror of God’s law, he didn’t see any blemishes. He never committed any sin. In his word he reminds us that Jesus chose to take the punishment that terrifies us on himself. He was forsaken by God so that we would never be forsaken. As God’s word reminds us of his love and forgiveness in Jesus, we get to look at God’s law in a different way. As we see all of our sins put on Jesus and paid for in full, our fear turns to peace. As God’s word reminds us of God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus, we see God’s law as an opportunity to show God how much we love him and how thankful we are for all he did for us. The same law that frightened and condemned us now shows us how we can show our thankfulness to God. It becomes for us who rejoice in our forgiveness in Jesus, a law of freedom. It shows us what we get to do for our loving father, not what we have to do or else. “God promises grace and every blessing to all those who love him and keep his commandments,” who not only hear them, know them by heart, but who want to do what they say out of love and thanks to God for their salvation.
James gives some examples of what it means to not merely listen to the word, but do what it says. He starts with bridling the tongue. James has a lot to say about controlling our tongues that is certainly applicable today when, even in the church, the 8th commandment is often trashed. Love covers a multitude of sin. Whatever is confessed and forgiven is not to be repeated, especially on social media. Even things that are true are not to be shared in an unloving way, or in a way that hurts another person’s reputation. If we fail to bridle our tongues our religion is worthless, James says. If we are known for telling lies, or for gossip, who is going to believe us if we tell them about what Jesus has done for them?
One of the things God holds up for those who claim to be his people to do is to care for those who can’t care for themselves, like widows, orphans and fatherless. Unbelievers get this. They hear that God is love and that Jesus came not to be served but to serve. When they see those who claim to believe in the God of love and to be disciples of a selfless Jesus being selfish and unloving they see our religion as worthless. When they see us acting the same way everyone else does, cursing just as much as they do, getting drunk like they do, ignoring what God says about sex and marriage like they do, chasing after earthly fame and power like they do, even patterning worship after godless entertainment, they see our religion as worthless. And so does God.
Thankfully, Jesus always bridled his tongue. When he was reviled, he did not retaliate. He defended the reputation of his disciples when the Jewish leaders put the worst construction on them. He always spoke the truth, and always in the most loving way possible. He did not chase fame or fortune, in fact he turned away from it refusing to let people make him an earthly king or to use his miraculous power for his own enrichment. He kept himself completely unstained, avoiding all the sins and temptations of the world around him. And he did all these things in our place because we have failed to bridle our tongue and to keep ourselves unstained by the world.
Thankfully, Jesus also went to the cross and had the Father punish him for every unkind, sinful, hurtful, judgmental word, and for every curse we have spoken. He had the father punish him for all the times we have tried to blend in with the world, ignored God’s commandments and chased after fame and fortune instead of righteousness and truth.
Because he has done all these things for us even though we didn’t deserve to have him do these things, we are moved and empowered to serve him. We are moved to honor his word recorded for us in the Bible and “gladly hear and learn it.” As we see our sins, we are moved to confess them, rejoice that we have forgiveness in Jesus, and then, with heats filled with joy and thanksgiving, see God’s law as a guide to freedom. We are moved to have pure religion, beliefs that are based on the truth of God’s word, and words and actions that reflect the love that he has put in our hearts.